In the early twentieth century, most of the electricity in the United States was generated in large steam boilers fed by fossil fuels and designed to capitalize on perceived economies of scale (i.e., spreading fixed costs over a larger output). Other technologies, such as nuclear and hydroelectric power, have since become appreciable contributors to the generation of electricity. Electricity can also be produced by kinetic energy from the movement of air (wind-electric power), photovoltaic devices that convert sunlight directly to electricity, thermal energy to heat fluids that drive electric generators, and the conversion of solar energy into living material (biomass), which can be used as an energy source as well as a source of materials and food. If the sources of the energy are not consumed in the course of generating electricity, these processes are considered renewable .
Using the heat in the earth to generate electricity (geothermal power) is also considered a renewable energy process. Even though local geothermal energy will be depleted over time, given the abundance and magnitude of geothermal heat worldwide, geothermal power can be regarded as "renewable." Biomass is considered renewable because it is derived from solar energy. Because biomass takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows, its combustion does not cause a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (unless fossil fuels are used in the growing, processing, or transportation of biomass). When biomass wastes from forestry or agricultural activities are burned, the reduced need for waste disposal is an added benefit. In fact, experiments are under way on some quick growing crops that could be dedicated feedstocks for biopower projects.
The advantages of most renewable processes are low-cost or no-cost primary energy source (e.g., sunlight, wind, or geothermal energy), continuing availability, and little or no addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Despite these
advantages, renewable energy processes must overcome substantial economic and other barriers to commercialization. Renewable energy technologies, which are in various stages of development, are the main focus of the U.S. Department of Energy' s (DOE's) Office of Power Technologies (OPT), and the focus of this report.
ORIGIN OF THE STUDY
In response to a request from OPT for an independent review of its programs, the National Research Council formed the Committee for the Programmatic Review of the Office of Power Technologies (see Appendix A for biographical information). A Statement of Task was developed in consultation with OPT and its parent office, the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), to conduct a programmatic review of OPT and recommend ways to strengthen the office and its programs.
OFFICE OF ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND RENEWABLE ENERGY
The EERE is responsible for developing cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that will protect the environment and support the nation's economic competitiveness. This goal is carried forward partly by OPT's programs to improve the cost and performance of renewable energy technologies. Working with industry through cost-shared technology development partnerships, OPT's research and development (R&D) is focused on solar-photovoltaic and solar-thermal power, biomass power, wind power, geothermal power, and hydroelectric power. OPT is also conducting R&D on advanced transmission and distribution technologies, energy storage, and hydrogen and is considering how renewable energy technologies can be used for the distributed generation of electric power. OPT's programs vary in size: the photovoltaics program has a budget of about $60 million per year; the hydroelectric power program and others have budgets of only a few million dollars per year. Both federal and private sector involvements will be crucial to the successful deployment of the developed technologies. DOE's goal is to facilitate deployment by using market mechanisms and by building partnerships with industry groups and state governments.
SCOPE AND ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT
The committee's Statement of Task is reprinted below:
The National Research Council committee appointed to conduct this study will undertake a broad programmatic review of the OPT program. The review will be conducted in the context of the broader energy economy and in light of opportunities to leverage and coordinate activities among the eight programs within OPT as well as with energy R&D programs outside OPT. The review will address the eight programs in OPT: wind,
photovoltaics, concentrated solar power, geothermal energy, hydropower, electrical systems and storage, biomass power, and hydrogen. The review will broadly consider programmatic issues such as:
the goals of the programs and of OPT as a whole (especially in light of the current energy economy, restructuring in the electric power industry, and of recent energy R&D studies),
processes for developing program plans, choosing R&D projects, monitoring progress, and directing program efforts & resources,
the balance of short term vs. long-term R&D and the appropriateness of the technical directions being pursued,
strategies for leveraging among the programs within OPT, other parts of DOE, other federal agencies, the private sector, and
strategies for deployment.
The committee will prepare a report summarizing the major strengths and weaknesses of each of the OPT programs and make recommendations, if necessary, that in the judgment of the committee, would strengthen the office and its programs.
In response to requests from OPT and EERE, the committee has made recommendations for OPT as a whole, attempting to identify crosscutting themes as it reviewed OPT's individual programs. Experts were invited to make presentations and to join in discussions of OPT programs at committee meetings (see Appendix B).
The suggestions for improving OPT in this report are offered in the context of the current and projected challenges facing the United States. Because environmental issues and concerns about climate change are international, these issues are also relevant to the domestic energy picture. They are discussed in the context of their implications for OPT's renewable energy programs. The background and larger context of OPT's R&D programs are discussed in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 includes the committee's comments, reviews, and recommendations for each of OPT's programs. Chapter 4 includes the committee's findings and recommendations for OPT as a whole.